I’ve read several blog posts and email list discussions lately about the problems entailed in naming characters, including the recent guest blog on my own site ( by F. M. (aka Marilyn) Meredith on “Choosing Names for Characters and ‘Rules’ I’ve Broken.”


Coming up with names is a chore every fiction author faces. Generally, I write down whatever name pops into my head, but that can cause problems. I can’t recall what I originally named the corpse in Unleavened Dead, but, fortunately, decided to do a quick Google search. The character is a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders among adolescent girls. He also turns out to have a rather unsavory, not to mention immoral and unethical and criminal, background. It was fortuitous that I searched the name because it turns out that I had chosen one that was too common, particularly among therapists dealing with eating disorders. I quickly changed it to something uncommon – John Quincy Moorhouse. To make sure I hadn’t inadvertently maligned someone, I didn’t use the more common spelling “Morehouse.”


I thought with the third book Yom Killer I had come up with the perfect solution. As a fundraiser for our synagogue, I sold character naming rights. But a friend of mine, blogger and avid reader Lois Hirt, bought several characters, all to be named for her grandchildren. She asked her children’s permission, and a few could be used for any age, but the rest were to be children.


And here’s where the difficulty (for me) started. First, there were too many with the same last name. I solved that problem by having one sibling group remain a sibling group, all children. For the others, I had the real-life siblings be recast as mothers and daughters.


Second, as they were all cousins, I tried to make sure that no single character got more “page time” than the others. As a pantser (one who writes “by the seat of her pants”), I don’t outline. My characters tell me what they want to do. So in a few cases, I had to change the names, either to those of non-realted “paying customers” or to fictional (I hoped) names. Doing a universal “find-and-replace” can be tricky, though, so I had to proof-read carefully to make sure I hadn’t slipped up. For example, I had decided that I shouldn’t use the word “purse,” but “pocketbook.” I did a universal “find-and-replace,” only to later read that instead of pursing her lips, a character was pocketbooking them.


Third, one character, the fictional Lois Hirt’s fictional daughter, was rather unlikeable. I made up a name for her, and checked with the real Lois to make sure she didn’t have any relative by that name. (She didn’t.)


Fourth, the character of Lois in the book is a bit “iffy.” But the real Lois was a good sport about it, and enjoyed not being the nice person she is in real life.


And therein lies another tale, so to speak. I couldn’t have all the characters be nice, or it wouldn’t be a mystery, not even a cozy. Or it would be pretty boring, with no dramatic tension. I had a sliding scale for the price, with the “villain” paying extra to be the bad guy. Even so, I was apprehensive as to how he would view himself in the book, as he revealed himself to be even nastier than originally planned. (The character insisted he needed to be.) Every time I saw the real person, I warned him, but he, too, was a good sport about it. And his friends got a kick out of seeing him in a new light!


Other characters that seemed shady at first redeemed themselves by the end of the book. The parents and grandparents who donated the names of their progeny and/or themselves have yet to complain.


My noble experiment worked – after a lot of revising – and raised some money for the synagogue while making some kids (and adults) happy to see their names in print. But I think for the future I’ll go back to stream-of-consciousness naming. Or … I know. My story is set in the fictional town of Walford, NJ, named for the equally fictional London neighborhood of Walford, the setting for my favorite soap opera “EastEnders.” I think I’ll take the first name of a character on the show and combine it with the last name of a different character. Yeah, that will work. Maybe.

Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first women rabbis ordained in the U.S., has decided what she wants to be when she grows up: a full-time writer. She is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries: the critically acclaimed Chanukah Guilt; the award-winning Unleavened Dead; and the latest,Yom Killer. She also wrote the best-selling nonfiction Talk Dirty Yiddish, soon to be released in a new edition; developed a website of Q&As about Chanukah (; and edited a cookbook Recipes by the Book: Oak Tree Authors Write. She lives in Marlton, NJ, with her husband Rabbi Gary Gans.




5 thoughts on “NAMING CHARACTERS FOR REAL PEOPLE by Rabbi Ilene Schneider

  1. It’s always entertaining to learn where names come from, and I sure enjoyed this post. I’d be afraid to let a mystery author use my name! Looking forward to reading the book.

  2. EARL STAGGS says:

    Normal, sane people (people who don’t write) are not aware of the struggle we have with choosing names. Sometimes characters take shape in our minds with their names attached, sometimes it’s really hard to come up with the right one. I sympathize with all writers who have that struggle, but implore you to never name a character Earl.

  3. This really made me smile because I can certainly relate to the difficulty of finding good names for characters. But I also smiled about using real names and the struggle that caused for you. I’ve only done that one time. It worked out fine, but I don’t think I’ll do it again. Too stressful!

  4. marilynm says:

    I’ve had many such contest winners wants to be the bad guy–and they loved having their names used that way. Using a kid’s name seems like it would be difficult. Good post, Ilene.

  5. Chris Eboch says:

    The main character in my children’s fantasy book The Genie’s Gift was Anis, but I decided to change the spelling to Anise, because Anise’s looks better than Anis’s. I used Find and Replace, which mostly worked, but I wound up with two instances of vAnisehed instead of vanished.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s